Thursday 18th April 2024,
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Learning from the Rajiv Malhotra affair

Learning from the Rajiv Malhotra affair

Now that everybody had had his say on the “Rajiv Malhotra plagiarism affair”, we can better discern the larger context that explains the different forces at work here.


The trigger was the discovery that seven passages in Malhotra’s work, mainly in his book Indra’s Net, had been lifted verbatim from unacknowledged work by others, chiefly Andrew Nicholson’s book Unifying Hinduism. Not that Malhotra could be suspected of the usual motive of plagiarizers, for he quotes Nicholson a number of times and makes amply clear that he sees the case he is making reflected in Nicholson’s work.  There had clearly been no criminal intent, just the lazy tendency to cut corners: why formulate anew what has satisfactorily been formulated by someone else?

Still, he could have been more meticulous about proper form, especially as this is a battlefield where any less than impeccable behaviour will be exploited and punished mercilessly. He himself has warned the members of his own internet list to acquaint themselves with the ways of the modern Kurukshetra, and here he has failed to apply his own principle.

So, certainly a lapse, but not more than that. The holy indignation which it evoked among people who had never even ackowledged Malhotra’s ideas, cannot be explained by the limited seriousness of the “offence”. Clearly, it had to do precisely with those unwelcome ideas, which could henceforth be put down as “the fantasies of a known plagiarizer”. That way august professors could now invoke an academic-sounding pretext for not addressing the contents of his books. They could now strike their familiarly condescending airs and dismiss his contributions with a good conscience.

The plagiarism could easily be corrected without much ado in a new edition of Indra’s Net, which Malhotra has prepared forthwith. There he has thrown the references to Nicholson out altogether, and demonstrated that Western Indologists can be replaced with Indian authors on Hindu tradition. He has used this affair to “decolonize” the book and turn the tables on his attackers.

Since I have been asked just what I think of plagiarism in general, let me add that I have little to add. Down with plagiarism, I guess, as far as my own writing is concerned. However, if other people choose to plagiarize me, I don’t care. Effectively, I have been cited without acknowledgment in scholarly papers because the authors assumed that being seen in my tainted company would reflect badly on themselves. Well, if my ideas can only reach the public by keeping my authorship concealed, so be it. Go ahead.

Malhotra’s historical role

Similarly, in the present context  I have been asked to give my opinion on Malhotra’s character, and about his work before this affair erupted. That is too unwieldy a topic, but a few points.

To start with the former subject, his critics have apparently found out that he is quarrelsome, not only irritating Western academics but even his own supporters, now often ex-supporters fed up with his “antics”. He is not the only Hindu who could profit from the Pañcatantra‘s chapter on the art of making friends. So yes, I do know some former supporters who have fallen out with his person but not with his ideas. The converse is also true: he has fallen out with Hindus who had offered help, e.g. in filming his lectures and debates and then putting the video on the internet, but reneged on their promise or done a lousy job. The life of a pioneer is full of irritants, and placid people wouldn’t stay in this business for long,– or wouldn’t remain placid for long.

Perhaps it takes such a temperament to face the formidable challenges he has thematized for the first time. Alleged personal idiosyncrasies are at any rate of limited importance, and not the reason why he is controversial. How many passengers care about their airplane being the fruit of physical science centred on laws discovered by Isaac Newton, and that this Newton was a difficult man? Would they give up air travel if only that Mr. Newton were a nicer man? Mediocre people are good at inventing endless objections against people who really make a difference. In this case, moreover, making a fuss about his personality is yet another way of ignoring the topics he has raised.

It has also been held against Malhotra that he has no academic status. Outsiders, and Hindus more than most, go ga-ga over status. Wealthy Hindus will rather sponsor an enemy with status than a friend without it. Intelligent enemies approach a wealthy Hindu, flatter India a bit to put him in a good mood, and then take his money to finance hostile projects. Understandably they hate Malhotra for calling on Hindus to think more strategically.

Anyway, many insiders to academe also take their own status very seriously. Yet, anyone with some experience of research can cite insiders professing far-fetched theories and outsiders who have made crucial discoveries. Malhotra has gained expertise through decades of hands-on research in more exacting circumstances than most, sometimes on topics that nobody had ever researched. Thus, his systematic database on the U-turn (the phenomenon that numerous Western individuals and entire disciplines have started with Indian inspiration, turned it into Western novelties and ultimately sold these back as Western inventions to India) has not been seriously developed except by him, eventhough it is a remarkable and large-scale cultural fact.

Do I agree with Malhotra? Firstly, we don’t entirely work on the same subjects. Secondly, where we do, there are still differences, e.g. I think he gives too much importance to the ethnic factor; there is ultimately no difference between Indian and Western ways of thinking. Still, I acknowledge that the power equation between these two ethnic conglomerates has greatly influenced the history of Indology, and its consequences even in the present should be mapped out and addressed. And so on: every issue will have something to differ on, next to much about which we agree. None of this is unusual, it should all be discussed.

Yet, that precisely is at issue. In the “secularist” articles published lately, I have seen a lot of denunciations, ridiculing, misrepresentations, all really calculated to keep the topics raised by Malhotra out of polite conversation. The favourite tactic against Malhotra, easy to do from a position of power, is stonewalling. According to Malhotra, his accuser Richard Fox Young has wimped out of a debate with him, and now uses the detour of the plagiarism allegation to neutralize his work.

I don’t know the whole story there, and perhaps Young has another version, but as a general rule, serious debate is indeed being avoided. The first step of an establishment against a vocal opponent is always to deny him legitimacy, then to pretend that there is no real debate, only a querulant rebelling against established common sense. These mechanisms can be seen at work now against Rajiv Malhotra.

Malhotra’s opponents

In the course of the present controversy, it soon became clear that the Goliaths lining up against our Hindu-American David (apologies for the Biblical parlance), fighting him with all the might of the academic establishment behind them, were not that impeccable either.

India’s secularists have predictably jumped on the bandwagon. They too have always avoided discussing (and thereby highlighting) Malhotra’s ideas, instead limiting their dealings with him to an occasional denunciation. But when others take the trouble of pulling a man down, they can always be counted on to start kicking him. The Business Standard‘s.Mihir Sharma took the opportunity to also attack Shrikant Talageri and Michel Danino.

No match at all for these scholars, he hoped to implicate them in Malhotra’s ill-repute and thus sideline their unrefuted findings. Danino sent in a reply putting Sharma in his place (incidentally showing that the Saraswati river, always ridiculed by the secularists as a “Hindutva fantasy”, has been upheld by a whole procession of leading Western and Indian scholars since 1855) and detailing the slanderous elements in his discourse. For the rest, while the secularists are admittedly powerful, their very repetitive position does not merit further comment.

The man who should be conceived as the “victim” of the “crime”, Andrew Nicholson, has strangely never complained of this plagiarism before. He joined the attack only when others invited him in and extracted complaints against Malhotra from him. Perhaps he felt inhibited because of his earlier implication in Hindu activism when he accepted awards for his now-famous book from the Hindu American Foundation and from the Uberoi Foundation. 

Both are used to being called “Hindutva” but, having profusely published on Hindu activism, I know that Hindutva is only one specific tendency, represented by the RSS. The HAF groups a broader spectrum of Hindus mostly not linked to the RSS. (Likewise, Malhotra himself is only called “Hindutva” by people displaying either their ignorance or their bias.) By contrast, the Uberoi Foundation may genuinely be characterized as strongly “Hindutva”, but Nicholson did not treat that as an objection.

Malhotra goes in counter-attack mode when he observes about Nicholson: “He also gladly accepted another award given by Uberoi Foundation, a very explicitly Hindutva organization. When it comes to duping Hindus and taking their money, he has done well as a ‘good cop’. His ‘good cop’ facade that had fooled me has now come off under the false pretext of being a victim.” (Niti Central, 21 July 2015)

The original discoverer of the plagiarism was Richard Fox Young, associate professor at Princeton’s Theological Seminary. It so happens that I met Young at last year’s South Asia Conference in Zürich, and truth to tell, I had a rather positive impression of him: upright, erudite and a committed idealist. 

If Malhotra and Young hadn’t been separated by religion, they might have been friends. Christian missionaries and their ideologues often have far more positive motives than Hindus are aware of. When Hindus, at least those not content with the comforting conspiracy theory that “missionaries are all CIA agents”, ask me why those missionaries come all the way to India to convert people, I truthfully say: “Because they love you.” Christians honestly think they do Hindus a favour by “liberating” them from their false religion.

What conspiracy thinkers fail to understand is the complexity of the human world. It is perfectly possible to have good motives yet become the cause of destruction of something good. In this case, Christians labour under the mistaken notion that Jesus died and was resurrected to save mankind from original sin, and that non-believers will miss out on this salvation.

The  Jesus story is an appealing myth, but alas, it is not true. To sum up several centuries of Bible scholarship: it just didn’t happen. So,Hindus don’t need Christianity. 

Nonetheless, two millennia of ardent belief in the need to “educate all nations” has equipped the Churches with an impressive array of organizations and techniques geared towards conversion. With their strategic eye, Christian scholars have not missed the opportunity offered them by Rajiv’s carelessness, to silence him. You can’t blame fighters for fighting.

About The Author

Dr. Koenraad Elst : Belgian Author and Orientalist :A Graduate in Philosophy, Chinese Studies and Indo-Iranian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. He frequently returns to India to study various aspects of its ethno-religio-political configuration and interview Hindu and other leaders and thinkers. His research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism earned him his Ph.D. in Leuven in 1998. He has also published about multiculturalism, language policy issues, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and the Aryan invasion debate.

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